VERNON, Alabama – On a sunny day last October, Mayor Glenn Crawford joined Governor Robert Bentley in this Lamar County town to welcome the first tenant in Vernon’s industrial park – K&S Lumber Co., which was producing railroad cross-ties with a small initial workforce.
For Crawford, this was a significant project, capping lots of hard work to prepare the 122-acre industrial park for K&S Lumber and future tenants. As it turns out, Governor Bentley also viewed the development as significant – prompting him to give it a shout-out in his State of the State address this week.
“It may not be the largest economic development project in the state, but it is an example of the optimism of our communities and the ability of our state to do whatever it takes to create jobs — whether it’s 4,000 jobs at Mercedes, or 11 at K&S Lumber,” the governor said in his speech.
Crawford and LaTrelle Kittrell, one of the principals in K&S Lumber, were surprised that Governor Bentley singled out the project, even though he attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony in the town of 2,000 last October. After all, Alabama is known for landing large-scale projects, most recently a Polaris Industries ATV facility with 2,000 workers in Huntsville.
At the same time, the Alabama Department of Commerce and the Economic Development Association of Alabama have been working on strategies to improve the competitiveness of rural areas when it comes to economic development projects. Commerce teamed with lawmakers and others to craft the new Alabama Veterans and Rural Jobs Act, which aims to do just that. (It’s part of an incentives-overhaul package now being considered in the Legislature.)
David Thornell, president of C3 of Northwest Alabama, a regional economic development alliance that serves Lamar, Marion and Fayette counties, says the Rural Jobs Act would benefit the state’s less developed counties by helping to level the playing field with larger cities.
“It’s important that rural areas have another tool in their tool belt when they talk to companies,” Thornell said.
OPENING AN INDUSTRIAL PARK
Today, Crawford is working to attract a second tenant for the town’s industrial park and says enhanced incentives for companies locating in rural areas across Alabama would boost his efforts to expand Vernon’s economic base.
This is a high-priority mission for Crawford. Over the past decade or so, Vernon has lost residents and seen very little new economic activity, he said. He was elected mayor in November 2012 based on his pledge to create jobs.
After Crawford got into office, he discovered that the town’s inactive industrial board owned a 122-acre industrial park off Convalescent Road that had no businesses but plenty of something else.
“Basically, we were just growing pine trees and some hardwood there,” he recalled.
So the mayor swung into action. Seeing the park as the best way to spur growth, he re-established the industrial board. Sections of the industrial park were clear-cut, and the timber sold to pay for improvements at the site. Partners including Alabama Power, the local sewer and water authorities, and C3 of Northwest Alabama, were enlisted.
Later, Crawford met Kittrell, owner of Atlaco LLC, a timber company in Samantha, and they discussed the possibility of a sawmill in the Vernon industrial park. Kittrell brought in partners – Ken Smith and his son Brennan. Before long, K&S Lumber Co. was born.
Setting up a sawmill in Vernon made sense to the K&S partners, Kittrell said. The location in Lamar County put them close to markets they wanted to be in while also extending their reach into Mississippi.
There was still work for Crawford to do, though. Before K&S could move forward with its plans, the park needed a road, sewer and water connections, and more. Crawford’s team turned to the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). The agency approved a $100,000 grant for infrastructure improvements.
This represented a green light for K&S to proceed. Initial plans called for its 6,000-square-foot processing facility in the Vernon park to produce cross ties for railroad operations in Alabama and Mississippi, along with byproducts from the production process.
The company opened its operation several months ago. Kittrell said new customers have already been found, and the sawmill employs as many as 15 workers.
“We’re hoping that we will grow, and we can add some things there,” Kittrell said. “We’re tickled pink.”
Now that Vernon’s industrial park is up and running, Crawford and the town’s industrial board have begun planning future phases. To position the park for another job-creating project, the mayor wants to pursue the construction of a spec building to make the site more attractive to prospects seeking an existing structure.
“One thing that Governor Bentley says, and we echo him, is that if you get 20 new jobs in a rural area, it’s like 300 to 400 new jobs in a city like Tuscaloosa or 500 to 600 new jobs in city like Birmingham,” Crawford said.
Both Crawford and Thornell at C3 of Northwest Alabama say the elements of the Rural Jobs Act will provide additional advantages for recruitment efforts in counties considered “less developed” or have fewer than 50,000 residents. The act would:
- Extend proposed tax credits to companies creating 25 jobs in rural counties, half the threshold for larger counties.
- Provide an additional 1 percent job credit for projects in rural counties, on top on 3 percent annually for projects elsewhere.
- Provide an additional five years of investment credits, to a total of 15 years, to the company if it sells the majority of its production to nearby businesses.
- Allow the state Industrial Development Authority to make loans to fund site preparation in a rural county. (A single loan could be as much as $2 million in project creates 25 or more jobs; $1 million cap for projects creating fewer than 25.)
“We appreciate and welcome any additional support we can get,” Thornell said. “Recognizing that companies choose locations based on where they can make money, this boosts their profitability in places they might otherwise overlook due to a misperception that smaller communities offer smaller amounts of the things they need to succeed.
“Anything like this new incentive program that helps prospective companies to take notice of rural Alabama advantages can serve as a huge help to our recruitment and expansion efforts,” he added.